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State to act on minority cultures

Friday March 5 2010


The Government is soon to research and document the rich histories and cultures, including the languages, of Kenya’s vulnerable communities for future posterity, the Saturday Nation has learnt. The decision has been made after realising that the languages are rich in idiomatic expressions, and that phobic communication may soon disappear.

National Heritage and Culture permanent secretary Jacob ole Miaron says the traditions are rich in oral history, poetry and narratives. “That gives a critical reflection of the people’s morals, migration and ethnic identity, as well as provides an avenue of communicating the rich cultural practices and cements communal unity,” says Dr Miaron.

There are over 70 ethnic communities in Kenya, and just like the figure on the population, this is based on tribes, which are mainly based on languages, and is not reliable. One reason for the uncertainty in this figure is that some ethnic groups are seen as sub-tribes and others as “main”. Based on this theory, it is said that Kenya has 42 tribes.

The Rendille, Orma, Boran and Gabbra are sometimes seen as a single tribe — the Oromo — while the Kalenjin compromise of seven tribes — Tugen, Marakwet (Merkwet), Sebeei (Elgon Kalenjin), Pokot, Kipsigis, Nandi and Keiyo. The Luhyia are said to have 21 dialects.

Of concern, however, is the realisation that some tribes are disappearing across the country, and debate is raging as to if this is anything that should overly worry the government. In fact, opinion is divided on whether or not tribes and, therefore, languages, especially those that are threatened with extinction, should be preserved.

All the same, the department of culture has committed itself to ensuring that Kenya’s indigenous languages and oral traditions are preserved and developed, and those threatened with extinction revived. The ministry recognises that when a language is extinct and has no documentation, it cannot be revived, but that the endangered languages can be revived.


“To safeguard a language from being endangered it is important to create favourable conditions for its speakers to, on their part, teach it to their children,” says the PS. History professor Godfrey Muriuki of the University of Nairobi says that if a tribe disappears, the country loses that language and, by extension, a whole culture.

But University of Nairobi literature lecturer Tom Odhiambo argues that the fear to let a language die could be driven by the feeling that, with some minority tribes disappearing, it will be difficult for the larger tribes to find someone to feel superior to.

According to him, disappearing tribes should be left to die. “If the clan is getting extinct, and many of us don’t even know the word for family in our mother tongues, why are we so worried about tribes getting extinct?” he wonders. “ Isn’t the disappearing of tribes the way to end tribalism in this country?” And a research fellow and the Institute of Anthropology, Gender and African Studies at the university, Dr Denis Khamati Shilabukha, differs, and argues that it is the politicians who give ethnic identity a negative tag.

“In fact, the concept of tribe is politically negative,” he says. Why should we let some groups, especially the larger two — Kikuyu and Luo) survive as the minority ones die off?” he wonders. According to him, the minority groups also have something to contribute to Kenyans’ and Africans’ collective being.

“For me ‘modern’ is euphemism for linguistic, urban market and industrial hegemony of the larger groups. We should encourage cultural diversity,” he says. Prof Muriuki weighs in: “The key thing is, however, for us to accept that we have negative ethnicity and clearly think of a way out. Unfortunately, we are currently sweeping the whole problem under the carpet.”

The historian, nevertheless, confirms that inter-marriage would lessen the negative ethnicity, although it would take some time “because events of 2007/8 took us decades back”. Centre for Multiparty Democracy programmes officer for Kenya Omweri Angima terms it selfish to say that tribes threatened with extinction should be left to disappear as “this tendency can polarise society”. He argues that all Kenyans deserve equal treatment.